Coronaviruses are a group of related viruses which cause disease in mammals and birds. The SARS-CoV-2 virus causes Covid-19, which is highly contagious and spreads very fast, but is not yet proven as a bigger killer than SARS and MERS, which belong to the same group.
The Covid-19 pandemic has so far caused about 11,000 deaths worldwide. Without trivializing the severity or seriousness of the pandemic, it is necessary to point out that societies worldwide have done little to minimize or eliminate far bigger killers.
Hunger kills around 9-million (mostly children) every year, and those who don’t die of hunger fall prey to other diseases. Suffice it to say that living to suffer disease is every bit as serious as death.
Of the worldwide annual 56.9-million deaths, 54% are due to the ‘top-ten’ which are, in order of magnitude, Ischaemic heart disease, Stroke, Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Lower respiratory infections, Alzheimer & other dementias, Cancers, Diabetes, Road injury, Diahorreal diseases and Tuberculosis. And then of course there are war-and-conflict related deaths due to malnutrition, disease and starvation, apart from bullet-and-bomb deaths.
It is noteworthy that except for the fourth, ninth and tenth of the ‘top-ten’, the others are essentially “life-style diseases” typical of an era of high consumption (all kinds, but especially fossil fuels and industrial processes & products), high environmental degradation (pollution exceeding the carrying capacity of the global ecosystem), and great economic inequality. All three, viz., consumption, environmental degradation and economic inequality, are due to the paradigm of unending economic growth, which all nations have adopted.
It has been posited that the Covid-19 pandemic is a threat to economic growth and the international economic-financial system, since whole regions are being shutdown.
An industrialist stated that “health is priority” and “business and livelihood is not the priority”, mitigating it with “Health of the employees is the responsibility of respective employers”. Employers are also to teach employees about basic hygiene practices, social distancing, self-quarantining, etc., in preparation for Covid-19 spreading. [“Health is priority, business can wait”; Deccan Herald; 20.3.2020; p.3]
However, social distancing and self-quarantining is practical or possible only in the economically better-off sections of society, due to their better physical living conditions and their economic capacity to forego earnings (due to staying away from livelihood/ job) for some length of time. The work-from-home concept is possible only in the IT sector or in IT-related jobs, not in the industrial, business, commercial/trading or service sectors, where physical presence is inescapable for any work to get done, even for economically better-off persons.
Social distancing and self-quarantining is impossible for poor people since they live in severely cramped conditions. Self-quarantining means no money and hence no food. Such people are the large majority of our population. For them, “it is not important for us whether we die of Covid-19 or some other disease”, due to living in an unhealthy environment with industrial and municipal waste.
The foregoing refers to urban areas, but it also applies in most rural settings mainly due to poverty among large numbers of landless agricultural labour, subsistence and marginal farmers, artisans and traders.
The Corona Effect
When large or small areas are locked down or people are placed in isolation or quarantine, normal social and economic life is affected. Movement of people is reduced as is consumption of all sorts, with the exception of certain items of medical or prophylactic use.
Workers in big and MSME industrial sectors are laid off or paid reduced wages. Small proprietor-partnership businesses, travel/tourism and other service sectors begin to wind down. For daily-wage labourers, roadside vendors, petty traders, etc., with no cash in hand, it is a situation of day-to-day survival for themselves and families.
People cannot carry on with their usual jobs or occupations. Incomes fall or cease. Economically better-off people manage with varying degrees of difficulty, but people from the lower economic sections become effectively destitute. Existing situations of unemployment worsen. There is less or no money-in-hand, and people starve. Their weakened physical condition increases their susceptability to disease. Even if the job market picks up, many are not able to regain physical vigour and strength to resume their earlier work. It is a no-return downward slide to destitution for the entire family when the breadwinner sinks below the level of physical or economic resuscitation, if and when that is made available.
This concerns the vast majority of India, and the consequent serious effect on the national economy stares us in the face. It can trigger law and order situations in the form of food riots, and upscaled petty crime by hungry people to feed themselves and their families.
Nations are complex societies with socio-economic structures which are susceptible to collapse because complexity increases vulnerability. When a sub-system in a complex system breaks down, it can be “treated” to restore the system to its normal functioning. Simultaneous breakdown of multiple sub-systems can become critical, necessitating resuscitation measures. It is not unlike multiple-organ failure in a human body when, beyond a point, resuscitation in intensive care fails.
In his book “Collapse”, Jared Diamond identifies five factors that contribute to collapse of complex societies: Climate change, Hostile neighbours, Environmental problems, Collapse of essential trading partners, and the society’s response to the foregoing four factors. He refers to historical societies which were far less complex than modern nations within a complex international system of nations.
The first three of the factors are present threats to our nation with its complex socio-economic linkages. The Covid-19 crisis can be the trigger for the fourth factor of failing trade due to a weakened economy. What applies to one nation may well be applicable to the larger international system.
Society, acting through elected governments, needs to address the threats with appropriate, adequate and timely measures, to eliminate the risk of socio-economic breakdown beyond the point of resuscitation.
Need of the hour
Before the current Covid-19 crisis, government had failed to put money in the hands of the poor to stimulate demand and help the flagging economy to pick up. It had preferred to focus budgetary and fiscal resources and attention on big industry and to use public money to rescue NPA-diseased banks. This pre-existing economic situation intensifies the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on very large numbers of people and the economy. There is dire need for permanent economic and financial policy shift towards being people-oriented instead of big-industry oriented, regardless of how long the Covid-19 threat lasts or when it may re-emerge.
State and central governments need to immediately institute systems to distribute the foodgrain surpluses lying in FCI warehouses free of cost, to deserving people who are easily identified. This should be done not as charity, but as a combined measure of social policy and economic revival.
When the economic system is slowing and huge numbers of people lose their livelihood and are in danger of irreversible destitution, what they need is not promise of a better tomorrow, but immediate economic help in terms of both food and money. Responsibility for this economic help for survival rests firmly with the state and central governments for targeted social, economic and fiscal aid sans corruption. Governments must crush corruption without politically motivated considerations. This is not the time for political pettiness.
Humanity also dictates that affluent sections of civil society and voluntary organizations give generously in cash and kind to lighten the economic blow and burden on poorer sections.
Maj Gen S.G.Vombatkere is focussed on development and strategic issues, using cross-discipline study and systems thinking.